Persephone crew – I’ll be honest. Part of the reason why I am writing about Griselda Gambaro is because in a mere two weeks, I have the privilege of a free trip to Buenos Aires. I won’t brag anymore (did I mention this is my first vacation in years? And that it’s free?). The trip got me thinking about one of my favorite badass Latina playwrights and activists, a woman whose stories framed the narrative of the once oppressed and violent country of Argentina.
Born in 1928, she was the youngest child and only girl in a family of four boys. Her father, a postal worker, tried to provide as much as possible for the family, but he was only able to give the very least, leaving Gambaro without access to a formal education. As if that would stop her. The young Gambaro began frequenting the library and educating herself, immersing herself in Chekhov, O’Neill, and Pirandello at an early age. She used this knowledge to her advantage to secure a job at a publishing company at the age of eighteen. During her day job, she began writing and ended up writing her first stories and plays while working. Between her perceived immaturity and the rejection, she considered this a difficult period.
“When I was twenty-four, I published a book of stories that I don’t want to remember. It was so immature, so full of the sort of imperfections that mar many first books.”
She, like so many other female writers of note, was not immediately successful and was considered “not as serious” because she was a woman. Though Gambaro never publicly spoke about the sexism and prolific misogyny she faced in her country, the theme of her works often revolved around the conditions she faced not only as a woman, but also the violence, oppression, and ongoing power struggle that defined Argentina’s political and cultural climate at the time.
In her mid-thirties she published her second volume of stories, Madrigal en ciudad (Madrigal in the City). Not only were they well-received by the Argentine public, but she was also awarded an esteemed public honor prize from Argentina’s National Endowment of the Arts, as well an invitation to work with Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, an active philosophical, political, and avant-garde organization. She was part on the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella until the government forcefully closed it in 1971 along with the majority of Argentine cultural and political venues. Violence became the norm, and Argentinians began disappearing before her very eyes, their crime being sited as “suspicions of revolt.” She stayed out of the public discourse for years, quietly writing and stopping her advocacy work. She finally published her next work, Ganarse la muerte (To Earn One’s Death) in 1977, a book that dealt very heavily with desaparacidos (forced disappearance due to government action) and the public’s attempt to recover those bodies to give them proper burial. The book was well received, much to the government’s dismay, and Gambaro became a government target.
“There were raids, the army paid us ‘visits,’ during which they looked at all the material in the house. As any material was considered subversive – Marx, Freud – a big burning of books resulted. Everyone who owned books burned them”
Ganarse la muerte was banned and a warrant for Gambaro’s arrest was issued. She became so scared for her life and her family’s wellbeing at this time that she burnt the manuscript of InformaciÃ³n para extranjeros (Information for Foreigners). The original work wove the narrative of the rise of the secret Argentine “thought” police who abducted, tortured, and murdered thousands of Argentinians for their thoughts. Gambaro was shocked that her words had essentially become truth. She became a wanted woman, and eventually she and her family fled to Barcelona and went into exile. During this period, she became engaged in the Catalan feminist movement as well as the political activism that had sprung up after Franco’s dictatorship. It became clear that if Spain could come back from such harsh dictatorship, perhaps her beloved country could as well.
When the dictatorship of Argentina began to wane and a new more democratically-inclined administration took over, Gambaro returned home and became an active presence in her government as a writer and as an activist. She later reconstructed InformaciÃ³n Para Extranjeros from memory, years after she had originally begun the work. Fulfilled creatively by the newfound freedom in Argentina, she began writing profusely, and the bulk of her work comes from this period.
“One often has a single theme, and I probably have mine: the problem of passivity. It must be due to personal reasons; I am a very cowardly woman. Very cowardly in every way. I’m not brave; I find it difficult to be brave. I am very preoccupied with passivity and the non-assumption of individual responsibility. In society, it is that way, and also in my plays.”
She played on the absurdity of the political climate that Argentina had not left far behind, often using dark humor in the dialogue and structure of her work. Her characters often mirrored the same internalized oppression she and her peers had felt during the dictatorship. Victims wrapped deeply within power struggles were portrayed as friends of family members, often causing grief to one another. It became obvious that despite the deep-seated issues she felt plagued the country – the deep misogyny, the political corruption – she always portrayed those who were the victims of this type of oppression as always being forever helpless and unable to break out of the deep cyclical nature of their surroundings. As she settled back into Argentinian life, both uneasy and welcoming of the newfound freedom, her work began to evolve from political and cultural satire to themes that dealt with her own emotional narrative, reflecting the positive changes within herself and her environment. Rewarded and beloved by her country and those abroad, she became the badass lady of history she was always meant to be.
“Non-Argentines are often taken aback by the acidity of our humor, and what Europeans have mistaken for Argentine “theatre of the absurd” has its roots in a strong and deep grotesque tradition. Eastern Europeans, I’ve found, relate very easily to my work.”